Gotta Keep It Together Even When You Are Falling Apart
JANUARY 14, 2023
by Heather Clark
“Pain nourishes courage. You can’t be brave if you’ve only had wonderful things happen to you.” ~ Mary Tyler Moore, actress
In the song chorus of “Mama’s Broken Heart,” Miranda Lambert’s fictitious mother gives her this advice when Miranda is spinning out of control after a romantic relationship ends.
Run and hide your crazy and start actin’ like a lady
’Cause I raised you better, gotta keep it together
It’s clear in the stanzas of the song that Miranda has no intention to “hide [her] crazy” as she takes several extreme measures to express her true emotions about the situation. Though not immediately evident, this song is not terribly unlike the predicament ministry leaders often perceive that they are in. They can believe they must act like everything is status quo even when they are struggling. Unfortunately, the world, the church, and colleagues often give ministry leaders the same misguided message as Miranda’s mama: “hide your crazy” and you’ve “gotta keep it together.” Whether you have ever said it or not, do you subscribe to the faulty thinking that you must appear to be OK even when you are not?
Individuals in leadership positions often resist acknowledging they are going through tough times because of deeply held beliefs about themselves. For example, “I should be able to get through this,” “I need to be strong for others,” “grown men don’t cry,” or “I don’t have time to deal with XYZ.” In addition to those common unhealthy beliefs, other people expect ministry leaders to have 24/7 peace of mind, solid marriages, ideal time and task management, as well as no need for sleep, no parenting difficulties, and no negative emotions ever. But, as you know, this is certainly not the case because this is not humanly possible.
Ministry leaders are as prone to life difficulties and mental illness as the rest of us. Furthermore, as boldly professing Christians they are wearing a bull’s-eye that Satan continues to take aim at. Regardless of this rational understanding that ministry leaders are just people, they are led to believe they (more than the rest of us) need to hide their crazy. This form of self-neglect leads to two kinds of isolation. Emotional isolation happens when they choose not to share their struggles with anyone and may not even acknowledge them internally. Social isolation also occurs because the individual feels less and less comfortable trying to fake that everything is OK.
Both forms of isolation provide the stagnant, warm, dark environment where the mold of self-destruction flourishes. It is here ministry leaders become incredibly vulnerable and out of desperation may take extreme measures to try to soothe their silent suffering (for example, substance abuse, pornography, adultery, even suicidality), rather than acknowledge the need for support. For ministry leaders to acknowledge their own humanity, it is incumbent upon the church and its leaders to replace those long-held unhealthy beliefs with healthy beliefs such as “all Christians need one another,” “there are no solo Christians,” and “we are all stronger together.”
Elsewhere in the song, Miranda’s mama notes that her appearance makes it obvious Miranda is not coping well. However, it can be difficult to detect physical changes in ministry leaders who are often performing a role publicly. Just like an emergency-room physician or a police officer, it is vital for ministry leaders to not wear their emotions on their sleeve as they perform their duties. That’s not to say they are disingenuous, rather that they may perform their professional role seamlessly even though they are falling apart inside.
Therefore, discerning your own physical indicators of trouble brewing requires (1) keen listening, and (2) keen self-awareness. Regarding listening—notice if there is an increase in the frequency with which people are checking on you (for example, “How is your family?” “Are you feeling OK lately?” “You seem tired.”). And as it pertains to self-awareness, pay attention to symptoms you may easily dismiss such as getting less than eight hours of sleep each night, gastrointestinal problems, body aches, chronic fatigue, emotional eating, changes in weight, increased physical pain, decreased libido, headaches, or heart palpitations.
Safety in the Flock
What does it say to the congregation if ministry leaders don’t ever have adversity? Have you ever considered the spiritual implications associated with leading others to believe this? One false implication is that ministry leaders really do have a charmed life, so we are led to believe it must be their holiness that warrants this favoritism from God. Another equally misguided assumption is that ministry leaders may have life challenges, but they are spiritually superior to common Christians. Because of their saint-like faith they are presumed not to need the comfort and support of other people when they go through trials.
In sharp contrast to these flawed perceptions, Jesus demonstrated the need for and health of going through the ups and downs of life with other people. He had a staff and an executive team he shared his heart with (for example, the disciples). It is incredible that when God put on flesh to walk among us, even He demonstrated the importance of community and support. Likewise, Mother Teresa confided in her superiors through letters about her spiritual and emotional struggles. And the Bible is full of leaders voicing their self-doubt, sins, struggles, and shortcomings to one another for us to still hear and learn from today.
Perhaps the Christian community version of “keep it together” is quite literally about abiding together with one another in times of trouble. First Peter 5:8 (ESV) paints a vivid picture of the dangers we face when we ignore our need for others and separate off from the flock. “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.”
Dear ministry leaders, I implore you to be clear minded (that is, sober-minded) in assessing yourself, your struggles, and any hesitancy to reach out to others. Consider if either self-neglect, emotional isolation, or social isolation, or all of these, is making you an easy target to devour. If so, lean into God and the family He has given you in the form of trusted colleagues, dear friends, Christian counselors, and health-care practitioners.
Tools to Minister Well
- Establish a relationship or two in which you don’t need to hide your crazy and you can fall apart. Encourage your staff to do the same.
- Listen to others and your body for indicators that you need to increase self-care.
- Follow Jesus’s example of keeping a close group of confidants you can share with.
- Do not isolate.